Calmer, quieter and more alert: why electric cars could change the way we drive

Electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars might inspire their drivers to become more calm and conscientious on the road

Porsche Taycan being built 
Will drivers of the Porsche Taycan be more careful and aware than those of a 718? Credit: THOMAS KIENZLE /AFP

Like it or not, we’re all going to be driving electric vehicles within only 10 years – the Government has brought forward the ban on sales of new petrol- or diesel-engined cars by five years to 2030, as part of its “green industrial revolution” initiative. 

Our lives are going to change in lots of ways. The air we breathe should be a lot cleaner; we’ll be thinking about electricity tariffs instead of petrol and diesel prices; and we’ll have to find somewhere other than filling stations to buy those last-minute flowers for that forgotten birthday.

But we might also drive differently, feeling more relaxed in the car and calmed by the quietness of an easy-to-drive electric car.

Hyundai – which has a few EVs and a hydrogen fuel cell car in its current line-up – has been thinking about this, so it recently conducted an experiment involving human guinea pigs, all wired up to drive around in petrol or diesel cars, then in electric (or hydrogen) vehicles, to see how they reacted on the road to the stresses and strains of modern urban driving. And I was one of those human guinea pigs.

I was fitted with a special wristband to measure my pulse, while in-car cameras monitored my facial expressions and eye movements. The steering wheel was also fitted with force-sensitive resistors, to gauge how tightly I gripped the wheel, and the car had an accelerometer to measure how harshly or smoothly I accelerated and braked.

With all these in place, I set off on a three-mile drive in frenetic urban traffic to rendezvous with a Kona Electric, an EV variant of the petrol car I was driving, which I would then drive back to my home. 

The future of electric mobility might mean roads become happier places Credit: John Lawrence 

The drive took place in mid-afternoon and the traffic was, well, the usual tetchy London traffic. I didn’t exactly get the opportunity to use the full range of gears in the regular Kona and the speedometer barely registered anything above 20mph. The accelerometer certainly wasn’t troubled.

The results, both my own individual scores and those for the 30 or so people who took part in then experiment, were interesting. 

The drivers were calmer in the EV, but also more efficient and more aware. Confidence was slightly lower overall, although I was more at home since I had previously run a Volkswagen e-Golf for several months, and thus more confident with the controls and how an EV drives. 

What is clear from the experiment – albeit a not totally scientific one, with such a relatively small sample size – is that we’re calmer and more efficient behind the wheel of an EV.

So what does this mean for us as a nation of drivers, 10 or 20 years down the line? Are we going to see less road rage? Will the method of driving an EV using just one pedal – the accelerator that, as soon as we lift off, also starts to slow us down as regenerative braking kicks in – mean that we become better at anticipating what other drivers are doing?

I shared the results with AA president Edmund King, who told me: “There is no doubt that driving an EV changes the way we drive. Despite the great performance from most EVs, we tend to drive them more slowly and more carefully.

“Psychologically, we are more at peace in the EV. There is no roar of the engine that excites. We are more aware that pedestrians can’t hear us, so we slow down to ensure nobody steps out.

“Ultimately the brave new world is nearly here, so we must peacefully embrace it and, who knows, it might lead to less road rage.”

Driver training organisations were more cautious, however. Neil Greig, policy and research director for IAM Roadsmart, said: “The fundamental principles of safe driving will not change that much. It’s about training yourself to observe what’s going on, anticipate hazards and deal with those hazards. The hazards will still be the same whether you’re driving an electric vehicle or a conventional vehicle. Most of what we do at the moment will still apply.”

Greig thinks that as we transition into electric cars the small, but important, differences will be enough to make a little retraining useful for most drivers. “I can see people getting into an electric car for the first time, dealing with the interior, dealing with the single pedal, looking at the new readout, will mean they’re going to be distracted by what’s going on inside the car – and that is potentially dangerous. That’s where a bit of training would probably help, before they go out on their own.

“We know we’re going to have to change our training to reflect things like the single-pedal approach. The fact that when you’ve got an electric vehicle, the way you brake and accelerate is different: some of these electric vehicles are incredibly fast and brake incredibly quickly as well, as soon as you lift off the power. It is a slightly different driving technique and we are still formulating our final response to that.”

Electric SUVs like these are becoming popular with families, but will the roads be noticeably different when they become the norm? Credit: Jeff Gilbert 

That approach was shared by the Driving Instructors Association, the largest organisation representing driving instructors in the UK. Karen Bradley, the DIA’s chief examiner for its Diamond advanced driving course, thought that an EV’s automatic gearbox is a major factor in improving calmness. “Automatic vehicles are easier to drive and people have less to negotiate, in terms of gears. This is probably why people feel less troubled with an EV. Technology also has a big impact on people knowing their cars and how they operate. There’s a lot more to think about in terms of cameras and other technology.”

But Bradley was more sceptical about whether we’re going to be calmer drivers. “I don’t think we can suddenly become calmer drivers because it’s an electric vehicle. Unfortunately, if drivers are aggressive towards others on the road, that’s not going to change depending on the vehicle they’re in. Calmness has to come from within.”

Of course, the other spanner in the works is that as we all migrate into electric cars, we might also find driverless cars taking to the roads at the same time. And that’s something that might test any new-found serenity we might develop when driving an EV.

As with everything else in the electric revolution that’s now underway, change is coming, but we don’t yet know what it’s going to look like.

Are you an angry driver who thinks battery-electric motoring might calm you down? Let us know in the comment section below.